Experts call on Albertans to protect key habitats as white-nose syndrome expected to infect bats
The Threat of White-Nose Syndrome
As a fungus that has devastated bat colonies around North America is expected to infect bats in Alberta soon, experts are calling on Albertans to be on the lookout and help protect key habitats. While the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was found in guano, or bat droppings, in southeast Alberta last summer, the disease hasn’t yet been confirmed in bats. Most people don’t often see the nocturnal mammals, but they perform important ecological work by eating things like mosquitoes and agricultural pests.
Prevention and Surveillance
Scott McBurney is a wildlife pathologist with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in Atlantic Canada, at the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island. McBurney told Postmedia it’s likely Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia will see a “huge population collapse” of their bat species. However, McBurney pointed to the importance of regular surveillance by wildlife professionals at winter hibernation sites. He also pointed to the work of citizen scientists, where in P.E.I., they helped report dead bats on the landscape, allowing researchers to map the progress of white-nose syndrome and come up with important mitigation or recovery efforts. People can also help by building bat boxes or other bat-friendly habitats on private property, or being careful to remove bats from buildings with the help of pest control operators at the right time in the fall without harming vulnerable pups.
Raising Public Awareness
Lisa Wilkinson, senior species at risk biologist at Alberta Fish and Wildlife and the provincial bat specialist, said it’s important for residents across the province to better understand bats and their importance to the ecosystem. “We know we can’t stop this disease from decimating our population, so the best thing we can do is maintain the best environment,” said Wilkinson, noting that it’s easier for bat populations to recover if they have good, safe places to roost and forage for insects. Deni Cameron works in agronomy and has been aiming to raise public awareness about how losing bats in Alberta will impact the ecosystem, noting that without them to eat and control insects, farmers will be forced to use more insecticides, affecting important species like bees.
Possible Mitigation Efforts
Jamie Rothenburger, University of Calgary associate professor in Veterinary Medicine and co-regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in the Alberta region, said bats infected with the syndrome could have a fluffy white coating on their nose, feet or wings. Some research suggests that in areas where there is white-nose syndrome, the loss of bats has led to an increase in insecticide and fungicide use. In Alberta, it is illegal to enter a cave where bats are hibernating between Sept. 1 and April 30. The little brown myotis bat, the northern long-eared bat, and the tri-coloured bat are listed as endangered species in Canada.
The Importance of Maintaining Ecological Balance
“At a larger ecological scale, often we don’t fully appreciate all the things that a species does for us until it’s gone,” Wilkinson said. Some bats can live more than 30 years, but they generally only have one pup each year, making it difficult to reverse population decline. In Western Canada, McBurney suggested that it’s possible the dispersed population of bats that live beyond well-known large caves and mines, which are more common in Eastern Canada, might help slow the spread of the disease.